Saturday, May 24, 2008

Feeding and Clothing the Future

This is my final post on the Tikkun Olam (healing the world) project that began last week, and it's a difficult combination of topics to discuss. It's hard because the culinary arts and fashion design are both professions involved with basic needs, but both can also be seen as emblems of greed and excess (to many reformers, at least).

Mind you, I don't really teach culinary students much any more (except for the occasional graduating student in desperate need of an elective, and who thinks art history might be an easy grade), but some of my favorite former humanities students are now chefs, and the new BFA programs in fashion design and merchandising have meant an influx of students I'm not used to teaching. I've been enjoying them immensely, though, because they've so far proven bright, creative, and interested--and their superior grades have reflected these qualities.

Those who know me probably chortle at my having the chutzpah to discuss fashion, since my chief criterion for garments is comfort, and I'm not what you'd call a fashion maven. My priorities are such that clothing falls fairly far down on the great chain of being, although if I had my druthers (and a great deal more time) I'd make all my own out of sustainably harvested fibers woven and dyed (naturally) by well-paid garment workers in airy, pleasant surroundings.

And this is where the healing question comes in: why is it that Americans would rather pay bottom dollar for clothes and food whenever possible, despite the fact that the production of cheap food and clothing means that workers are exploited and the environment degraded in order to supply these markets? Food sustains us, clothing protects us, and both allow us to reflect our cultural affiliations and creativity, and yet we are extremely reluctant to pay real wages to the people who grow and harvest the basic materials. As Jubal Early would say (in the Firefly episode, "Objects in Space"), does that seem right to you?

While it's true that factory farms are raking in the dough and that high-dollar clothiers are rolling in it, most of the people who do the legwork (farmers, farm workers, stockers, cashiers, waiters, bussers, clerks, tailors, etc.) often do so for minimum wages or less, are seldom provided with insurance plans, and frequently work well beyond a forty-hour week. Some of these people are even experiencing situations that closely resemble slavery (see especially the information and links on the Alliance For Fair Food page). "The Working Poor" has become a buzzword, but the fact remains that too many of the people who work harder than the rest of us are paid much less and earn barely enough to survive.

I can't fix this, and neither can my students. But we can help by being much more mindful about how we use our talents and how we spend our money. We can, for example stop buying fast food altogether. We can eat less meat, and make sure what we do eat is humanely raised and killed and safely prepared, even if that means changing our eating and buying habits radically. For example, most of the world uses meat as a flavoring--not a honking great steak on a plate as the main course. A few bites of chicken in a well-prepared sauce heavy on the veg and eaten over a bowl of brown rice or other whole grain is not only more healthful, but pretty tasty as well. Cook up some rice to keep in the fridge for a couple of days, and you've got the basis for a number of quick meals that are better for you than stopping by McD's on the way home.

But "I can't," I hear my students say. "I can't live without meat." "I can't live without hamburgers." "I can't afford anything better." Baloney. Years ago, I lived (on purpose) for several months on a welfare mother's budget. It was another of my social experiments, designed to help me figure out what I need and what I merely want. Not only did I succeed, but my husband and son were better fed after I began to cook everything from scratch. When I began to grow some of my own fruit and veg, the repertoire expanded, and I managed to re-educate our tastes so that we were able to accumulate enough money for the down-payment on a house with what we saved on food alone. I'll admit that I was not working at the time (stay-at-home mom), but that meant I had no income of my own, and I was also going to grad school part time. And while my students may not be able to grow anything in their apartments, they certainly can learn how to feed themselves more healthfully and more economically. All one needs is will and education.

I've actually discussed questions of mindfulness and food on three other posts, Utopian Pizza, The Raw and the Cooked, and Tangled Webs, all of which consider cultural aspects of food and eating in greater depth. It's harder to rethink fashion, because the whole industry is founded on a couple of problematic principles: a designer's job is based on the idea that clothes go out of style, and the merchandiser wants those clothes to go out of style as quickly as possible in order to keep the industry profitable. I do, however, wonder what the world would be like if we were to design for sustainability instead: styles that never get "old" made from earth-friendly fabrics and dyes by people who aren't exploited.

"Style" based on comfort, practicality, and ethical considerations would be far more appealing to many of us than what's being turned out so frequently today: breast-, butt-, and belly-exposing designs that titillate and seduce, clothes that glorify less-than-desirable human foibles such as drug-use, war, or other forms of excess. Plenty of cultures rely on a few basic clothing items which vary in color and fabric, but little else. But just look at tribal designs in parts of Africa, or saris on a street in India, and you can see that clothing can be expressive without being simply trendy.

What if the quest for the latest fad were replaced by a quest for durability, originality, practicality, and true beauty? Wouldn't it be better to own a few garments that make us feel good, move with our bodies, keep us appropriately warm or cool, and express our sense of color and style without making us all fit into somebody else's idea of what a man or woman should look like? Wouldn't it be better to dress our kids in comfortable, durable, colorful clothes that enable them to move and play freely without trying to make them look like baby soldiers or hookers?

Clothing and feeding are two of the most important things we do for ourselves, in addition to finding a place to live. If we're going to keep this world working for the next few generations, we're going to have to start being much more mindful about how we address questions about how we go about satisfying our needs. And it's precisely because these are needs that they deserve the careful consideration of those who will be working in directly-related professions. Fashion designers and chefs will have a great deal of impact on our economic future. It would help, I think, to remember that "economics" refers not only to the financial well-being of the country, but to the the cultural and ecological well-being of our oikos--our home: this planet.

For resources on these topics, see the "Education of Desire" sites linked on the left. They're good places to start.

Addendum: It occurs to me, a day later, that my remarks about food's costing too little may seem facile and naive when many of the nation's working poor have to choose between spending money on food or on rent--or make any number of equally difficult choices. But a significant number of these same people are the ones who are providing food and food services to the rest of us. It's precisely because they're paid so little that food is relatively inexpensive in this country--especially compared to what it costs in other developed areas of the world, such as Europe. If people received pay equal to the value of their labor, and if profit weren't the major incentive for everything we do, a more equitable economy might result. A good article on the topic by Darra Goldstein can be found in the current issue of Gastronomica.

Photo: Female vendors sitting on the ground at a fruit and vegetable market in Kuchaman, Rajasthan, India. By John Haslam, on Wikimedia Commons.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Envisioning New Worlds

Little did folks like Louis Daguerre and Eadweard Muybridge realize, only a hundred and fifty or so years ago, that their technical innovations would spawn a perceptual revolution. Well, they might have imagined a small one: a new way of looking at the world, perhaps. But the power enjoyed by visual media today would have been unconceivable to the earliest pioneers.

Film, video, animation, and various manifestations of virtual reality all stem from some very simple ideas, which would have seemed like magic to the guys with the clunky boxes and bottles of volatile chemicals. Good film and animation still evoke magical responses, especially in children. And therein lie two aspects of the power these industries wield in the modern world: education and responsibility.

For reasons I've yet to fathom, some children (primarily boys, although culturally "primed" girls are also involved) really like to blow things up. They love fire and guns and exploding body parts. I'm not going to get into the black hole of discussion about whether or not visual media cause violence in children, because there are good arguments and data on both sides of the question and I suspect that no single answer is forthcoming. However, I do know that after my son watched Tom and Jerry cartoons when he was just a little guy, he would then run around being a holy terror for the next two hours; so I suspect that the cause and effect argument is not entirely without merit. Nonetheless, I'm not advocating the banning of violent video games or anything like that.

What I would like to see, instead, is an increase in games and films that challenge the little gray cells: excellent stories, stunning visual effects, intellectual stimulation, historical fidelity, and ethical consideration. No, I'm not asking game designers and movie producers to provide us with more Davy and Goliath. But surely virtual life can provide alternatives to stealing cars, blowing up buildings, and newer and fancier guns (that still do the same thing: blow arms and heads off of enemies). The puzzle games I found interesting and challenging early on (Myst, Labyrinth of Time, Qin) now seem like blips on the screen. These days the choices seem to be between glitzy arcade games and "historically" based adventure games--in addition, of course, to the shooters. The graphic environments of these games still seem creative and effective most of the time, but I'm not sure animators are ever going to get humanoid figures right (one reason I don't like games with people in them). They also don't get the history right very often, and use it primarily as a vehicle for delivering to the gamer more chances to beat the crap out of someone or something. How about an adventure game that explores the possibilities involved in cleaning up the planet and finding alternative ways to live? Ways, that is, that don't involve blowing people up? I know I've ranted on this subject before (see Virtual Unreality), but our current situation seems to me to offer the ultimate scenario: saving the planet and building a sustainable future. Without the use of explosive devices.

For filmmakers, it seems to me that we've pretty much exhausted the chainsaw bloody guts splatter kill and maim genre. How many different permutations are there of Jason and Freddy, anyway? Aside from the basic psychological question of why people even find this stuff entertaining, there is the challenge of creating films that explore core moral concepts like honor, friendship, fidelity, responsibility, co-operation. I'm not saying that films about these concepts don't exist, but they're few, and usually involve some canned, sentimentalized, dumbed-down situation with unambiguous solutions to hackneyed problems. Potentially good stories are ruined, and their lessons muted, because some dope in Hollywood thinks he or she knows kids better than the storyteller does (I'm thinking specifically of The Golden Compass here). Or, we get the cynical version, where the good guys die, their cause is defeated, and their efforts have all been in vain. And then everybody gets blown up.

Maybe one reason I became such a Firefly fan is because it was the first television show I'd seen that refused to pander to popular tastes and expectations, but managed to be morally uplifting and entertaining at the same time. Joss Whedon and his writers presented ambiguous situations honestly, and unsentimentally. And humorously. Some folks criticized the Old West In Space aura, but Westerns were once one of the few genres that dealt with big, important themes. Well, Westerns and pirate movies. And a few space operas.

Anyway, this is where I'm going: The film and gaming industries are completely unnecessary to human existence. We will not die if an EMP shuts off our power and movies go away. Gerard Butler can always tell the story of Star Wars in a bunker in post-apocalyptic Scotland, just like the bards of old did with the story of the Trojan War. That said, however, films, videos, television, and games have become such an integral part of human life that barring the apocalypse, they're not going away. But aren't people eventually going to get tired of the same old shoot-'em-up crap, with different anthropomorphic monsters, sporting new and improved guns and bombs, and slightly different bodily fluids to spray all over the set?

And how are the kids going to turn out? If all they see through these media are stupid people doing stupid things, or violent people doing violent things, what the hell kind of future is that going to lead to?

I'm not arguing for cotton candy here. But how about thoughtful, challenging, visually stunning films that use all of this (highly environmentally destructive) technology to help make our kids smarter, more curious, less passive, more eager to get out and do something about the problems we're handing down to them. Documentary films that don't sex up a question with "mysteries" and hyperbole (like the recent Secrets of the Dead segment on the Minoans) and portray historical events honestly and accurately would help them learn that questions can be answered, and interesting problems can be solved using responsible means.

And, occasionally, we could turn off the TV, put the Game Boy or XBox away, and take everybody out to rough it in the wilderness for a few days. Who knows, they might see real stars.

Photo: Virtual reconstruction of the barred Milky Way Galaxy. Wikimedia Commons.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Graphic Healing

I am amazed, every day that I teach, by the sheer variety of talents my students possess. A large number of them are budding (or even working) graphic designers, and most of them are thoughtful people with ambitions that range from the practical to the lofty, and have discussed with me what they perceive as a sort of "moral danger" attached to what they do, a concern a thoughtful person might have about any field in which technology and money are involved.

What are designers to do, after lumbering themselves with a five-figure debt that will, with interest, most likely run into six figures before it's finally paid off (depending on how they've financed their education)? The easy answer is to sell out to the highest bidder, ask no questions, and do what they're told for the next few years. After that, who knows?

But some of these people are already asking tough questions. How can I do what I love without adding to the myriad problems now facing this fragile planet? Graphic design as a profession is, after all, replete with potential problems. Printing can still involve the use of toxic chemicals, not all of which are disposed of properly (although alternatives are now available). Computers themselves are hardly "green" by nature--and even the most environmentally friendly of them may outsource jobs, impact wildlife habitat, and contain chemicals and materials that will eventually find their way into the waste stream. Not only that, but advertising in particular is a field that all too frequently preys upon human insecurities by manufacturing desire. Human beings like stuff, and most of the businesses that hire designers are involved in making stuff that advertisers are hired to help them sell: whether or not it's necessary, truly useful, or environmentally benign. In the worst cases, advertisers and designers are involved in promoting causes with which the individuals involved may disagree on moral, political, or religious grounds.

It's truly difficult to make choices with the potential for world-healing in an economy that seems to be bleeding away chances for decision-making. While the supermarket shelves may be stocked with seemingly limitless choices among breakfast cereals, there's no telling how long many jobs in the companies that sell these products will be available. Not that selling sugary, chemical-laden breakfast cereal is an ideal job--but it's the kind of job agencies produce.

If you're willing to take a little longer to retire the debt, several options present themselves. Working for non-profit institutions, especially those engaged in bettering the lives of others, may not pay as well as working for Big Advertising, but it generally does pay a salary. You get to meet like-minded people, and work for change at the same time you get to use your skills and talents. But if you do have to settle for a job with The Man, you can still help by doing pro bono work for something you care about. If you freelance, you can build a clientèle of nonprofit groups by charging on a sliding scale, offering your services at lower rates for groups doing work you believe in. You can also focus a portion of your portfolio on "good works" that show off your skills and your commitment at the same time. This runs the risk of alienating folks who don't agree with your causes, but you probably wouldn't want to work for those people, anyway--right? Your portfolio should not just show off your skills; it should provide potential employers with an idea of who you are, and what motivates you.

Asking the right questions can also help make decisions about jobs. During interviews, designers can certainly ask about a company's mission, about the diversity of its workforce, about its clients. Many companies are developing "greener" policies and jumping on the environmental bandwagon as a way of promoting themselves; discussing these issues can help you determine whether their interest is superficial (purely for promotional purposes), or whether they're truly committed to lessening the company's impact on the planet.

In other words, as corporations become more and more concerned about their public images, it may be easier and easier to find jobs that don't compromise designers' priciples. When you have choices, and the best among you will always have choices (well, unless the economy completely tanks, and then we're all in trouble), opt for the job that not only matches your skillset, but is also compatible with your philosophical understanding of the world--even if it doesn't pay as much as a company that doesn't fit as well.

Employment in the field of graphic design is not, by any means, restricted to advertising. Web design, illustration, technical drawing and design, communications media, and education are all fields graphic designers enter, and some offer fewer moral challenges than others. Even if your life's ambition is to design skateboards or teeshirts, you can find yourself in a position to choose materials, and these choices can be made in terms of environmental and/or social impact. Small efforts can often produce significant results.

Think of the promotional possibilities: Joe's Earth-friendly Skateboards, sustainably built, using 85% recycled materials, or Emily's Earth-Shirts: 100% Organic Cotton and Natural Dyes. Donate part of your profits to the World Wildlife Fund or Heifer International, and you'll double your impact! Hell, I'll even buy one (tee-shirt, that is . . . don't think I'll ever get on a skateboard again).

Better yet, think even more deeply about what you're doing, and choose a path that leaves the world less full of stuff. We probably don't need more tee shirts and skateboards, after all, or at least not all that many of them. But surely we can find ways of using design talents to foster sustainable living, by reducing waste and increasing the longevity of what we manufacture. In order to find ways of living that minimize our impact on the planet, and jobs that don't add to the problems that already exist, the first step involves thinking carefully about what we want, what we need, and how we can achieve an appropriate balance between the two.

This is what education is about, and why my students have to take general education courses that introduce them to philosophical concepts related to their fields. In view of this mission, as a general studies instructor I'm assigning the following to get my graphic design and web folk headed down the right path:

In addition to my blog, please see this one: Slow Making, which considers craft as lifework, not just as employment. You might also read "Fear of Not Having Had" in the most recent issue of Orion magazine, which explores the culture of accumulation to which we belong, and raises questions that should be part of your career decision-process.

More discussion to follow. See you in class.

Photo credit: First Aid in 1920 and 1929, from the Meyers Blitz Lexikon, via Wikimedia Commons.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Design to Heal the World

The power of the English language is such that words often do double duty as both nouns and verbs. While this often leads to confusion, it also makes puns possible. I've often thought that this fact might make for interesting names, and even played with the idea in my novel (giving various characters names like Bend, Cook, Book, Hand). And so I managed to accomplish a bit of a pun in my title for this blog; it's both an exhortation (do it--design to heal the world), and a commentary on how design itself can save the world. The post is, in fact, a plea to my students as designers, and an acknowledgment of design's innate power. Of course, I'm not the first by any means to suggest that artists and designers possess this power. William Morris believed it to his core, and it's the basic notion behind such movements as the Vienna Secession and the Bauhaus.

The Arts and Crafts Movement, in fact, provides an excellent example of how people have responded to social problems by proposing art as an anodyne. Educate people and teach them craft, and you will provide them with a way to earn a living, and a way to engage their minds. The Bauhaus was founded on similar ideas about the democracy of art and craft, although unlike Morris's movement, it embraced the machine as a way to construct high-quality, well-designed goods for a less well-heeled clientèle than Morris & Company had served.

Most of my formal teaching career has been spent helping design students understand the significance of design within the larger scope of the humanities, and familiarizing them with the history of their craft. But I don't often get a chance to impress upon them the importance of choosing a path within the various applications of design that can lead to positive--and necessary (especially for their own future well being)--change. And unlike most of the politicians strutting about these days, I'm going to get specific here. By "change" I mean altering the present global political and economic course toward choosing more sustainable, less destructive, and more life-affirming means more closely aligned to the ends toward which they are directed.

Many such paths are currently available to us on a personal economic (remember the roots of the word: oikos means "home," and nomos "principle" in ancient Greek) level: smaller homes, more fuel-efficient cars, more mindful energy consumption, conservation practices such as recycling and resource management, care of land and property, use of public transportation, participation in civic affairs. But on a professional level, choices can often become more difficult, especially when a student is faced (as most of mine are) with significant monetary debt that often leads to their taking the first job that comes along to help relieve the burden. I certainly understand this impulse, having never been in a position to be particularly choosy about those for whom I work. Nevertheless, I thought I'd focus the next couple of blog entries on some suggestions: questions to ask, things to consider, etc., before my students graduate and go off to make their way in this increasingly fragile world.

I was actually inspired to do this by my own daughter, who plans to graduate in December with a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in Interior Design. Because she already has a job she enjoys and that pays her well enough to support herself and her Very Large Dog, she's sometimes ambivalent about going through the process of becoming a licensed designer (interior architecture is probably a better description of the field she's studying) because it would initially involve a pay cut and a period of what amounts to apprenticeship before she can take her qualifying exams. In addition to this, and as much as I love shelter magazines that promote sustainable design, I see the stereotypical, Architectural Digest model of interior design as gluttonous, wasteful, and extravagant, no matter how many articles focus on the environmental activities of celebrities. I am, therefore, particularly interested in how she plans to use this degree.

So when she started bubbling over about her senior project idea--a cancer center for children--I quite simply beamed with pride and gratitude. The project she outlined would actually marry her professional and social lives, because most of her "off" time (little as there is of it) is spent raising money by participating in cycling marathons for the Leukemia Lymphoma Society (the link is to her Team in Training fund-raising page). She initially was prompted to do this by the death of a friend's child, and many of the "honored heroes" she rides for are cancer-afflicted friends and family, or survivors of leukemia or other cancers.

Then I started thinking of all the useful ways through which design professionals can contribute to world betterment. Although I no longer teach interior design students, it's clear that they don't all have to go to work designing opulent surroundings for rich people, or sell out to firms that ignore the impact of construction-related industries on the planet. In fact, the field of interior design seems to be evolving toward sustainability; students take courses in green design and adaptive reuse, and materials classes increasingly focus on recycled materials, organic sources, and energy efficiency. Imagine what would happen if a conflagration of interior designers were to ignite their profession with the spark of sustainability! End of silly metaphor.

The next few blog entries will pursue this discussion, focusing on one or two fields in succession. A couple of my students have already broached the subject in responses to previous posts, and I welcome their suggestions. We are, after all, in this together--although if we do it right, they'll be "in it" a lot longer than my generation will. I think they deserve a chance at a better world, and it's our responsibility to help them learn how to make it.

Photo: "Darwin's Thinking Path" described by its maker (Tedgrant at Wikimedia Commons) thus: "This is a path in the grounds of Down House. Darwin regularly walked along this path for exercise of body and mind. He called it his 'Thinking Path'. I visited Down House on my 60th birthday and took this picture with my digital camera."

Saturday, May 10, 2008

How Rich People Can Save the World

Well, maybe not the whole world. But a significant part of it.

While thumbing through one or another of the shelter magazines I subscribe to--either for myself or for my interior-design-student daughter--I ran across a glossy ad for the newest addition to Chicago's already remarkable skyline: the Chicago Spire [note: the Flash home page doesn't work in Firefox], designed by the Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava (whose presence will also soon be felt in Dallas, through one or more bridges across the Trinity River). Since part of my job entails teaching students about contemporary art and architecture, I try to keep up on the latest projects by renowned architects--but had somehow managed to miss this one. In addition, Chicago is flat-out the best American city in which to live (and yes, it's because I'm a Cubs fan), so my interest was immediately piqued. After all, the infamous 1871 fire that razed the city provided a tabula rasa on which major architects have imprinted the history of modern architecture, and Calatrava's building will certainly add an interesting dimension. Nonetheless, I'm absolutely appalled by it, and here's why.

The building will be 610 meters high (2000 feet) when it's finished, probably around 2011. Its total cost (at present estimates) will run about $2,400,000,000.00. And no, I did not add any extra zeros. A four-bedroom flat will set its owner back about $5.8 million, a 534 square-foot studio about $750,000, and if you want to live in the 10,293 square-foot penthouse, be prepared to shell out $40 million. Forty million dollars. U. S. currency (for whatever that's currently worth). My information, by the way, comes from the Spire page at the Best Chicago Condos website, and from the News section on the building's home page.

Dallas is trying hard to out-gun the big cities with impressive residences of its own. Most of them are absolute crap, designed by builders rather than architects, and cobbled together from vague associations with a romanticized, non-existent past (a la Thomas Kinkaid), or transplanted from inappropriate sources (like the so-called Croatian Village being built near me, and which is being flogged through Blogger; they're apparently too cheap to build their own web page). So I should be thankful when an actual architect of some repute, Scott Johnson (of the firm Johnson Fain), took on the job of designing the new Museum Tower in the "arts district" (don't get me started on that) down town. It will be built adjacent to the Dallas Museum of Art, I. M. Pei's Meyerson Symphony Center, Renzo Piano's Nasher Sculpture Center, and Norman Foster's Winspear Opera House (under construction). A "sprawling park" will be built next door, over the Woodall Rogers Freeway (I'm afraid to check on cost estimates for this little enterprise).

Sure enough, a big ad shows up in this month's Architectural Digest (the epitome of house porn, but highly informative), flaunting (after a brief description of the tower's amenities) a starting price of $1.2 million. That's for a pied-a-terre of about 1450 square feet. If you want something larger, say 8,700 square feet, you might settle for the penthouse that takes up the entire top floor--for a mere pittance (compared to the Calatrava Spire) at $20 million. But then, this is Dallas, not Chicago. The cost of living is rather lower here, although so is the quality of life. (I know; not all who reside in this area consider themselves to be living in exile, and so may disagree with me in this regard.)

Here's the saving-the-world part: What if everyone who is considering plunking down a million or more on a flat in either tower were to use half of that to buy a home that's maybe not as impressive as an apartment in a "world-class" building, but certainly able to satisfy one's desire for extravagant spaces, and then spend the rest to buy rain forest? Not to build on, but to let be.

There are loads of $500,000 houses for sale in both cities today; it's a buyer's market. Think of the deal you could get.

When I saw the various models of Calatrava's building, I immediately thought of all the spiral designs that human beings have painted, carved, or built since we actually became human. The design reflects the economy of nature, and exhibits a mathematical purity and elegance unmatched by almost anything else. It's easy to see why Calatrava, who's work frequently evokes natural forms, would be attracted to it. The rain forest itself abounds in spirals: coiled snakes and bugs, baby ferns, snails, monkeys' tails, the eddies in rivers and streams.
But we're losing rain forest and its in-dwelling species (in addition to the lifeways of indigenous peoples) at an alarming rate. And so a movement is afoot that answers some of the absurdities of market economics (buy more, build more) by suggesting that we buy rain forest to keep the natives from having to sell it to the likes of the loggers and the oil exploration outfits. The plan is not without its critics, but the arguments in its favor are pretty compelling.

And think of the message if the Chicago Spire and the Museum Tower were to stand empty, or were never completed. If the funds were used for saving the rain forest instead, it would say something about our priorities and announce to the rest of the world that we had finally realized that there are more important things to do with our cash than live in absurdly extravagant homes. Human beings have already made an immeasurable aesthetic mark on the world; maybe it's time for us to stop using up enormous amounts of resources in preposterous efforts to convince ourselves further of how wonderful we are.

I am fully aware of the impact on the economies of Dallas and Chicago if these monuments to the great god of capital excess weren't built--or were built and never inhabited. Nevertheless, I also can't help but think of what that $2.4 billion going into the erection of the Spire could do to enhance the lives and local economies of rain forest dwellers (and, in the long run, toward saving our own lives and economies). And that doesn't even include the money that will be spent on the apartments themselves--nor the costs associated with the Museum Tower. Isn't it time for people who can actually afford these things to start asking themselves if there isn't a better way to spend their money?

Just askin'.

Photo credits: "Nautilus Cutaway Logarithmic Spiral," by Chris 73, Creative Commons License through Wikimedia Commons; "Polystichum setiferum" (no attribution), and "Shongololo (millipede) on tropical rain forest floor, Cogo District, Rio Muni, Equatorial Guinea, Africa" by OxonHutch, both Wikimedia Commons, both modified slightly.

Friday, May 2, 2008

Building A Better Schoolhouse

While revisiting old issues of my favorite shelter magazine, Britain's version of Country Living, I came across an article on community-based education, "A New School of Thought" (CL September 2003). I'm always astonished at how long the Brits have been at stuff that seems cutting edge here (or that hasn't even been broached)--everything from microwaves to mobile telephones to permaculture. But then, they've been around a lot longer than we have, so it really shouldn't be all that surprising.

At any rate, because I'm constantly being reminded about how utterly awful the American education system has become, and what a joke "No Child Left Behind" has turned out to be (even if I really understood what it meant, I'm not sure I could be convinced that it's been even slightly efficacious), I'm always startled when an alternative already exists, happily chugging along despite my oblivion.

According to the Human Scale Education website, the group describes itself as "an education reform movement committed to small scale learning communities based on the values of democracy, fairness and respect." The article notes that member schools--many of which were taken over after the government had decided to shut them down and bus children off to bigger, more "efficient" comprehensives, often quite far away from their villages--don't even have to follow the national curriculum, nor submit to standardized testing regimens, although many do. Mark Davies, principal at the Bishops Park College secondary school in Clacton, UK, offers a nice history of the movement and a blueprint based on his own school in his article, "Less is more: the move to person-centered, human scale education." The whole thing sounds so utterly democratic as to be intuitively obvious, so why haven't we done something like this here?

A Google search tying "Human Scale Education" with "United States" doesn't bear much fruit, because all of the articles that turn up are from Britain. What comes closest are articles by America's bad boy of education, John Taylor Gatto, who shook things up a decade or so ago. My favorite of his essays, "The Six Lesson Schoolteacher" appeared in the Fall 1991 issue of The Whole Earth Review, and I remember reading it while I was in Chicago, studying for my comps and on my way to becoming a teacher myself. In it he describes what was--and clearly still is--going on in public schools: the regimentation and focus on standardization that is all too painfully killing the imagination of our young people and creating a Nation of the Bored.

As it turns out, however, some of the earliest efforts at reform occurred right here in the US and have been used to help promote similar efforts in Britain (see this Parliamentary memorandum on Human Scale Education). Since about 1991, a movement has been afoot to create smaller, more democratically operated schools in this country, especially in Chicago, where the public school system adopted a small-schools initiative that remains in place today. The system still oversees the schools themselves, but the idea that smaller schools produce better educational results--or at least better options--seems to have taken hold.

Around here, "charter schools" seem to be the response du jour. According to a clearinghouse website, "charter schools are innovative public schools providing choices for families and greater accountability for results." The fact that they are funded and assessed through the state indicates that the autonomy level has to be somewhat lower than that enjoyed by HSE schools in England. And although charters seem to be a viable way of addressing concerns about one-size-fits-all educational "packaging," some local charter schools have had difficulties ranging from bad management to inferior test scores; but a report from the National Center for Policy Analysis notes that overall, Texas charter schools seem to be enjoying a measure of success. Again, however, rather than being independent entities like HSE schools, charters are held to Texas testing standards. It would be interesting to discover whether the vaunted innovation is focused on genuine education, or simply on finding different ways to get kids to do better on tests.

The high-stakes standardized testing obsession needs its own discussion, but what it does to our children was driven home to me just a couple of days ago in a Dallas Morning News article, "Texas Schools Testing Ways to Ease TAKS Anxiety." (TAKS is the acronym for Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills--which seems to do neither. It should more accurately be called the Texas Attempt to Appease Bureaucrats because it has nothing to do with knowledge, and measures only those "skills" that can be memorized.) Why anybody thinks it's appropriate to place children into a situation with the potential for such trauma is way beyond my ken.

I've often said that if I had it to do all over again, I'd home-school my kids. They both started out in Montessori, but transferred to public grammar schools, and both turned out well enough. The saving grace probably lay in the fact that both their parents participated in their educations--by volunteering in the school library, coaching Odyssey of the mind teams, leading Junior Great Books groups, and such. I'm not sure many parents today have (or make) enough time to invest in creating educational communities, which is truly a shame because this is where our salvation may lie. It's not enough simply to attend the soccer matches or the band performances. We have to become active partners with educators, and must make the value of a broad-based education visible to our children. They need to know that education is part of who we are as parents--and that it's not just something we inflict on them because it was done to us.

Perhaps the HSE people have the best idea for this world: education formal enough to provide kids with a common cultural grounding, and some fundamental quantitative and qualitative skills in maths, communication, literature, science, history, geography, and philosophy--as well as some experience in life skills, craftworking, and community-building.

Rather than being wholly anarchistic, where they simply learn what they want when they want it (which is more or less what happens in my utopia), the alternative would be to help them acquire what they need it roughly when they need it--or at least as soon as they're capable of grasping it. What I truly object to is force-feeding a standard curriculum of predigested information that leaves them with a transcript full of evidence that they can memorize facts, but a head full of nothing consequential. Boredom only happens when children haven't the skills to put their imaginations to use, and this is where we're failing them miserably.

William Morris often talked about education in terms of the whole person: training the heart and mind for worthwhile work. As he put it in his long essay Signs of Change,

In a duly ordered society . . . young people would be taught such handicrafts as they had a turn for as a part of their education, the discipline of their minds and bodies; and adults would also have opportunities of learning in the same schools, for the development of individual capacities would be of all things chiefly aimed at by education, instead, as now, the subordination of all capacities to the great end of "money-making" for oneself--or one's master. The amount of talent, and even genius, which the present system crushes, and which would be drawn out by such a system, would make our daily work easy and interesting.

The huge suburban education-factories being built today, in cahoots with the Testing Regime, have conspired to turn our children into carbon copies of one another, bereft of imagination and condemned to boredom if they're not continuously entertained. And while we may neither need nor desire to return to the one-room schoolhouse of old, perhaps by following the examples of the small-schools initiative and Human Scaled Education movement, we can rear more creative, engaged children who embrace learning rather than seeing it as the next best thing to a prison sentence. It might then be possible to relegate the word "boredom" to the ranks of the obsolete words in the dictionary.

Photo credit: "Amish Schoolhouse" by Irving Rusinow, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.